Readings: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-15, Revelation 19:4-9, True Christianity 791 (see below)
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Today is a day that is holding a lot, practically bursting with celebration and joy! It is Juneteenth, as well as New Church Day, and Father’s Day. And let’s not forget that it is falling in June, which is Pride month. Such a lot to celebrate!
So today, I want to focus on the thematic connection between Juneteenth and New Church Day.
Juneteenth is a holiday that originated in Texas as a celebration of the day in 1865, when a Union Army General proclaimed freedom for the enslaved people of that state. Now, the Emancipation Proclamation had indeed already been issued two years earlier on January 1st 1863 but its enforcement was inconsistent, and relied on the presence of Union troops. Texas, the most remote of Confederate states, lagged far behind on implementation and actively tried to avoid implementation, and thus we have the importance of this second, state-focused proclamation in 1865.
Local celebrations of that day started immediately and continued to gain momentum, especially in the safer spaces that churches provided, eventually becoming a day for not only celebrating emancipation but also celebrating African American culture.
Now, New Church Day has also been celebrated by the Swedenborgian movement for a very long time. It commemorates the day, June 19th 1770, that Swedenborg reports the disciples traveling far and wide in heaven to proclaim: The Lord God Jesus Christ Reigns, whose kingdom shall be forever and ever.
On the face of it, this seems like a fairly basic theological thing to proclaim; why is it so important as to be celebrated by the church every year? Well, this statement comes as a postscript at the end of Swedenborg’s work True Christianity, his two volume survey of the theology of his revelation. And in particular, the statement comes as the capstone to Swedenborg’s treatment in that book of the rise of a new church in human culture and history.
Swedenborg didn’t really understand this “new church” as being an organization, he understood it as a new way for humanity to be in relationship with God. Again and again throughout his final section on the new church, he states that for our salvation, people need to be in active and personal partnership with God. This was in contrast to all the ways that religion throughout the ages had tried to convince people how they would be saved: enacting sacrifices in a certain way or in a certain place or to a certain god, enacting certain rituals or sacraments, believing the “right” theology and saying the “right” creeds.
Instead, our salvation (note: not our chosen-ness, not our get out of jail free card) but rather our happiness to eternity, rests on us choosing to engage with a personal God who we believe cares about *us*. And, Swedenborg believed that it was really hard to have that kind of relationship with a God unless we could “see” (meaning conceptualize) God as human, and not human in a limited way, but human as in someone kindred with whom we can feel safe and understood.
Therefore, Jesus, the human incarnation of an infinite and invisible God, becomes an integral part of us human beings being able to buy into and participate in this kind of relationship. It helps us to recognize ourselves in Jesus, to see the same struggles, the same human shape of body and life, to know that he experienced much of what we experience. God came to us as Jesus so to increase our capacity and our openness for the type of engaged partnership that Swedenborg understood to be so important to our salvation.
Our reading from Revelation uses the metaphor of marriage in order to communicate the closeness, commitment, and free choice, that is involved in this partnership between each of us and God. In verse 7, For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Now, marriage is certainly not the only relationship that can model these characteristics of course, but through this metaphor, we get a taste for the kind of engaged steadfastness that God is going for with us.
And so perhaps we can see now the import of declaring The Lord God Jesus Christ Reigns. This very simple statement contains the acknowledgement that God and Jesus are one, and so contains the potentiality for our humanness and God’s humanness to be in a spiritually productive and personal relationship. And in addition, the fact of Jesus being God and God being Jesus communicates to us the enormity of God’s Divine Love, and God’s single-mindedness in bringing that love to us, to every person, in a meaningful and progressively transformative way.
Which brings us back around to Juneteenth. Swedenborg saw the New Church as something that would progressively emerge in the world the more that individuals chose to engage in partnership with God. The more individuals engage in partnership with God, the more they would see the truth of God’s love for everyone, the more they would value humility, diversity, equality, and see the potential and value of each human soul the way God sees it.
Slavery itself was the opposite of that. In its essence, it proclaimed that some people are less worthy than others, so much less worthy that they did not deserve basic autonomy or dignity, or the power to choose their own path, and that conversely some people were more worthy and tasked with dominion over others. There couldn’t be anything more opposite to the basic tenets of New Church Day, in that God’s Divine Love seeks a relationship with all souls, holding them all with equal importance, and that all have an equal place in God’s vision of the future.
And so Swedenborgians would understand the abolition of slavery as one more sign (among many!) that the New Church is coming into the world, that the metaphorical New Jerusalem from the Book of Revelation is descending from heaven to become manifest and real in the here and now. The hope contained within New Church Day is that there will many more Juneteenths to be celebrated, large and small, and that ultimately one day there will no longer be a need to free people from injustice because injustice will no longer exist.
But as we look to that future, we have to recall that Juneteenth only exists because of the *work* of people, (and not only their work but their suffering and sacrifice) responding in faith to the God, or the highest moral imperative, of their understanding. New Church Day celebrates the beginning declaration of *what could be*, and now it is up to all of us to bring it about. And this is why I chose to include the final verse in our Daniel reading: “I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me.” The celebration of New Church Day should trouble us a little, certainly even a lot, for the ways in which the characteristics of the Holy City are yet to be manifest.
Part of engaging in relationship, with God but also with anyone, is seeing through another’s eyes not only our strengths but also how we can improve, how we can love more effectively. This means relinquishing many things our ego would rather not relinquish, changing our mindset from serving ourselves to serving others. As it is with us personally, so it is with our society and world at large. The impulses that built institutional slavery have not gone away, instead these forces of racism and domination have been woven into the fabric of our society. For white folks, Juneteenth should serve as an opportunity for learning, as we reflect on how we can help to make things better. We can choose, together, to weave a new pattern, but there is still so much work to do and we cannot turn away from doing our part.
Let us also remember though, that God is helping. What is so moving about New Church Day for me is to deeply feel the import of God’s dream for humanity. When we love someone, we want what is best for them, we want them to exist in a context that allows them to thrive, we want them to be supported in ways that help to build them up, and we want them to be challenged in ways that help them to grow into the amazing souls that we know them to be. This the way God feels about us, all of us. And so God dreams for us The New Jerusalem, The Holy City, a place we only know about through the metaphor of scripture, but a place that I think we all feel in our hearts. New Church Day, and I imagine Juneteenth too, are about celebration but also about yearning, about longing for what could be. There is something very bittersweet about seeing with one eye that which is still broken, and with the other a restoration that still is to come.
So today, let us inhabit fully this in-between space, let us feel both reproach and hopefulness, both criticism and promise, for that is where we can get things done. Let us be as faithful Daniel “troubled in spirit” while also as in our Revelation reading, part of the “great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns.”
Daniel 7: 9-10, 13-15
9 “As I looked, “thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze.
10 A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened.
13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.
14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
15 “I, Daniel, was troubled in spirit, and the visions that passed through my mind disturbed me.
Revelation 19: 4-9
4 The twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God, who was seated on the throne. And they cried: “Amen, Hallelujah!”
5 Then a voice came from the throne, saying: “Praise our God, all you his servants, you who revere him, both great and small!”
6 Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
7 Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.
8 Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)
9 Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”
True Christianity 791. Postscript
After this work was finished, the Lord called together the twelve disciples who followed him in the world. The next day he sent all of them out to the entire spiritual world to preach the gospel that the Lord God Jesus Christ reigns and that his kingdom will last for ages of ages, as foretold by Daniel (Daniel 7:13-14) and by the Book of Revelation (Revelation 11:15); also that "people who come to the wedding feast of the Lamb are blessed" (Revelation 19:9). This occurred on June 19, 1770. This is what the Lord was referring to when he said, "He will send out his angels, and they will gather his chosen people from one end of the heavens to the other" (Matthew 24:31).
Readings: Genesis 18: 1-10a, Luke 10: 38-42, Secrets of Heaven #2189:2 (see below)
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Photo by: Pragyan Bezbaruah
Interpreters have often been quite hard on poor Sarah and Martha in these texts. Though it wasn’t included in our reading, Genesis 18 goes on to detail Sarah’s reaction to the news that she will have a son. Now, she and Abraham are remarkably old, long past child bearing years. God had already promised them a son, but that was many years ago and they had been waiting a long long time. When Sarah overheard the promise of the child, well, she laughed. It seemed ridiculous. And her laughter, even as it informed the naming of her son Isaac, has sometimes been lifted up as a lack of faith. Likewise poor Martha toiling away in the kitchen. She has often been portrayed as preoccupied with silly, superficial, self-serving things, her resentment as unwarranted, her complaining to Jesus remarkably presumptive.
But as we know from our own spiritual journeys, our feelings and our reactions are rarely so simple, so black and white. With a Swedenborgian interpretive lens, we look not to each character in themselves, as if one is a model for us and one is not, but rather, that each character represents a part of ourselves. We all hold within us Abraham and Sarah, Mary and Martha, some parts welcoming some parts doubting, some parts yearning, some parts resentful. The key is to notice which part is rising up within us, and why, and what we are to learn from its appearance.
As we begin to explore commonalities between the texts, we can see that each begins with some sort of act of welcoming, an opening of a home towards people who are guests. Then, once the guests are welcomed, the expectations of the hosts are challenged is some way.
In both stories, there appears a sudden need for hospitality. Abraham spots three strangers in the distance. Their arrival is unexpected. The narrator has informed the reader that it is the Lord, but Abraham does not know this yet. He offers them sustenance and orders the preparation of a choice meal. Sarah and the servants diligently get to work. In our text from Luke, Jesus and the disciples were traveling as was their practice, and they came to a village “where a woman name Martha opened her home to him.” It’s not a foregone conclusion this would happen. Jesus has been gaining notoriety for sure, but he was still regarded suspiciously by many. Martha was taking a chance on him, for clearly she had responded to his message.
And so, we are prompted to consider the practice of welcoming and hospitality in our own lives. What happens when we open our homes and our shared spaces with others and with God? On a deeper level, what happens when we likewise open our hearts, our minds, our lives to others and to God?
Certainly, we might first imagine that it is our job to make guests feel comfortable by doing all the right things. We’ll do our guest room up just right, and they will be happy. And when we ourselves are guests, perhaps we try not to be any trouble. And this is nice, all well and good. But God’s purpose for hospitality is not limited to niceness. When we are willing to welcome God into our lives, we find that God has no intention of being a perfect guest. God has a little bit of trouble in mind.
On each of our journeys, God aims to be present, loving, and steadfast but also to challenge our expectations, to lead us into transformation. We all have certain notions around “this is the way things are.” Sarah’s barrenness, and her age, are a metaphor for the ways in which we might have written ourselves off…we will always be too “something” for God to truly work a miracle of transformation in us. Too complacent, too busy, too tired, too satisfied, too nervous, too overwhelmed, just not ready. Sarah knew what God’s ultimate plans were, yet she had exempted herself from participation in them.
Martha was grappling with expectations in a different way; the expectations of the world around her. As the host, Martha had certain duties that she felt she needed to fulfill. Indeed, earlier in the very same chapter, Jesus had sent out the disciples to go from town to town, to rely on the very kind of hospitality that Martha was giving. So we need to be clear, Martha was doing a very good, very needed thing. And at the same time, she was being challenged to think differently about the roles that her society proscribed. Yes, Mary was neglecting her work, but it was work that her society had deemed appropriate for her. By sitting at Jesus’ feet, Mary was transgressing social boundaries, taking on the space of a disciple, who was typically only male. Yet, Jesus lifts her up as an unlikely, unexpected hero, just like the Samaritan was lifted up in the parable directly beforehand. Martha then joins with us, with the hearers of the story, as Jesus compassionately makes clear that the boundaries, the roles that the world creates are not operative in the kingdom of God. Mary has a yearning in her heart, and it shall not be taken away by those who would act to limit others because it serves them in some way.
And so *we* are also challenged to see differently. Sarah was challenged to see herself differently, Martha was challenged to see others differently. And it was hospitality that kickstarted the process; we cannot be transformed if we do not open our doors, our minds, our hearts. This opening, this welcoming of unexpected experience is not always easy.
Sometimes our ideas about ourselves and others, yes even our ideas about our own goodness, have to fall apart and be rebuilt. We are forced to face our own limits, we are forced to see what compromises we make just to feel okay in this broken world, and we are sometimes forced to see our notions of who and what is righteous crumble.
When this happens we will often react in human ways; we doubt, we resent, we resist, we object, we justify. These are all normal things to do and feel. It’s just not where God will leave us. Chaos, confusion, challenge are not the end point, as overwhelming and all consuming as they might feel. Because, the beautiful part of this process is that, as we know from the Old Testament story, it ends with birth. Sarah is told that she will give birth to a son. Sarah hears a word from God that seems unbelievable, and she laughs. The Lord again compassionately challenges her: “Why did you laugh?” We can imagine God thinking: “What else do you imagine I am trying to do here?” And then we read in verse 14 "Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.” I will return to you and you will have a son, I will return to you and you will have birthed something new. This is what God is up to.
In the Swedenborgian worldview, Sarah’s son Isaac represents the rational becoming spiritual. In our reading, we learned about the process of spiritual transformation; that it happens because of a desire to know what is true, what is ultimately and beautifully true, even if the truth is hidden, as it often is, by our expectations. This ability to look for, and to recognize, essential truth is what Swedenborg calls the human “rational.” The rational just starts out wanting to know things. But in order to be able to become spiritually mature, our rational has to figure out what to *do* with the truth that it has found, how to integrate that truth into a life well lived, a life of love.
We heard in our Swedenborg reading that when we are devoted to seeking truth and living a life of love, then this life of love is “constantly being born and developing and increasing” within us. We can now start to see how the story of Sarah and Martha is one that happens again and again and again. This is how it works: in a life that wishes to become progressively more spiritual, in a life that wishes to know what is true and real, we are constantly challenged to rewire our habitual ways of thinking and seeing, constantly challenged figure out new ways of loving our neighbor, and thus we give birth to new versions of ourselves. Constantly. This is how our faith is formed, this is how we become angels, this is how God leads us to eternity. It’s not always comfortable, sometimes it is downright unpleasant, but it is the way of love: sacrificial, courageous, and determined.
So, throughout our day-to-day, throughout our lives, like Abraham, we are sitting at the entrance to our tent and we see the stranger coming, a person, a circumstance, a life-change, a bump-in-the-road. What do we see Abraham do? He runs toward them and bows down. Our natural response might be to close our eyes, to walk on by, to hum a tune and look away. But no, our sacred text bids us run towards them, run because we know that they are gift from God, run because we know that God works to transform us through our experience in this world, run because God’s economy wastes nothing. Hospitality, openness, and welcome are the right thing to do. And they work to transform us as well.
Martha welcomed Jesus because she perceived that he was doing something important. He was; and because of that she was challenged to think anew, challenged to notice her own bias, preoccupations, and yearnings. We are not told how this works out for her, what her reflection looked like, what new thing was born for her. What we do know is that the Lord was doing what God always does: breathing us into expanded ways of thinking and loving so that we can transform and grow, so we can become the angels God knows that we can be.
1 The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. 2 Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he ran from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. 3 He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. 4 Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. 5 Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.” “Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.” 6 So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.” 7 Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. 8 He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree. 9 “Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him. “There, in the tent,” he said. 10 Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” 41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Secrets of Heaven 2189:2
The first and foremost element of the rational with a person is truth…and therefore it is the affection for truth, which exists with a person to enable them to be reformed and so regenerated, such reformation being effected by means of cognitions and facts, which are matters of truth. These are being constantly implanted in good, that is, in charity, so that in this manner a person may receive the life of charity. It is therefore the affection for truth with a person that predominates in their rational. For the situation with the life of charity, which is the life of heaven itself, is that in people who are being reformed and regenerated it is constantly being born and developing and increasing, such growth being achieved by means of truths. Therefore the more truth that is implanted, the more is the life of charity perfected. Thus as is the nature and the amount of truth present with a person, so is the charity present with them.